Brian Polian is hoping his Nevada Wolf Pack football team listens to him this week.
“I challenged the entire football team,” the head coach said as his Wolf Pack prepared to meet the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at Mackay Stadium on Saturday afternoon (1 p.m.). “We have to play tougher, smarter and more fundamentally sound football. That’s the challenge this week, to play to our standard.”
The Pack, 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the Mountain West, ignored Polian’s message a week ago before a stunning 28-21 loss to winless Wyoming on the road. The third-year coach warned his team that Wyoming wasn’t to be taken lightly despite its 0-6 record. “Coach Polian stressed to us, ‘Don’t take that team for granted,’” linebacker Bryan Lane said. “He tried to tell us. We all said, ‘Oh, yeah, we hear you,’ but we definitely didn’t listen to him through our actions, how we played. Through our actions we didn’t believe a word he was saying.”
Tight end Jarred Gipson admitted the Pack didn’t truly listen to its coach. “We probably took them (Wyoming) for granted,” Gipson said. “We looked at their record and we came out thinking that it was going to be a walk in the park when it turned out to be an all-out dogfight.”
“We tried not to look at their record,” defensive end Lenny Jones said. “But we didn’t play like we didn’t look at their record. We didn’t play like we thought that team could beat us.”
The Wolf Pack, Polian said, played without intensity and passion. “I didn’t like our body language at certain points in the game,” said Polian, who is now 14-18 as the Pack head coach over two-plus seasons. “We have to identify guys who are going to fight and fight and fight.”
The Pack players admitted they left their fight in Reno last weekend. “We just didn’t come out to play,” running back Don Jackson said.
“There was no energy,” Jones said. “We’d get stops (on defense) on third down and guys were just walking off the field. It was upsetting.”
“That wasn’t us as a defense, as a team,” Lane said. “We were flat, we lacked energy, we lacked passion.”
The Wolf Pack has now lost four of its last six games. A home game against Hawaii on homecoming weekend, though, might be exactly what the Wolf Pack needs to turn its season around and keep its vanishing division title hopes alive. “We still have a lot of football left to play,” Polian said.
Hawaii, now 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the Mountain West, is coming off a 28-27 loss at New Mexico. Losing on the road, though, is nothing new for the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii has gone 1-21 on the road overall and 1-13 on the road in Mountain West games since the start of the 2012 season when Norm Chow became head coach. Chow, a former offensive coordinator at BYU, USC, Utah, North Carolina State and in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, is 4-23 in Mountain West games and 10-34 overall. “We’re not devastated,” Chow said this week. “We still have a lot to play for.”
Chow also has developed a sense of humor when it comes to taking his team on the road. “We put on Willie Nelson and we sing, ‘On the Road Again,’” Chow smiled. “I’m serious. We do it.”
Hawaii is arguably the worst team in the Mountain West right now. The Rainbow Warriors are the only team in the 12-team Mountain West without a league victory. They are also last in the conference in scoring offense (16.6 points a game), total offense (289 yards a game), total defense (429 yards a game), rushing offense (106.1 yards a game), first downs (15.6 a game), first downs allowed (25.1 a game) and time of possession (23:54). Their defense also has just one interception all year. “You just have to keep pushing ahead,” Hawaii offensive coordinator Don Bailey said. “We’ve improved the last three weeks. That’s what we have to keep doing.”
Hawaii’s offense is further complicated by the health of starting quarterback Max Wittek. The USC transfer missed last week’s loss at New Mexico because of a knee injury but has been practicing this week and is expected to play on Saturday. The 22-year-old Wittek started the first six games and passed for 975 yards and five touchdowns with eight interceptions. Kaika Woolsey played against New Mexico and was 13-of-25 for 195 yards. He threw for 2,538 yards and 13 touchdowns last year for Hawaii. “We are preparing for both quarterbacks,” Polian said. “We expect both of them to play.”
Wittek sat out last season after transferring from USC. The senior was a highly recruited quarterback in 2011 out of southern California’s Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, the same school that also produced USC quarterback Matt Barkley. As a red-shirt freshman in 2012, making his first college start in place of an injured Barkley, Wittek gained national attention when he guaranteed a victory over Notre Dame. USC lost to Notre Dame that day, 22-13, as Wittek passed for 186 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. “He is awfully talented physically,” Polian said.
Wittek, who engineered Hawaii’s only two wins this year over Colorado (28-20) and UC Davis (47-27), left USC after the 2013 season when he lost the starting quarterback job to Cody Kessler. He was rumored to be going to schools such as Texas, Ohio State and Louisville before he chose Hawaii and Chow, a former USC offensive coordinator. “Looking at film, there are some throws you see him make and you say to yourself, ‘Why did he throw that?’” Polian said. “But then you see him make another throw and you say, ‘There aren’t many quarterbacks in our league who can throw that.’”
Hawaii has won just one of seven games against the Wolf Pack in Reno since the rivalry began in 1920 (the Pack leads the series 11-8). The Pack has gone 4-0 against Hawaii since a 27-21 loss to Hawaii in Honolulu in 2010. Current Wolf Pack quarterback Tyler Stewart beat the Rainbow Warriors 31-9 at Mackay Stadium in 2013 when he made his first college start in place of an injured Cody Fajardo. A win on Saturday will make Hawaii the first team that Stewart (4-4 as a starter) has ever beaten twice as a starter. “We’re fighting to get back to .500,” Polian said. “We’re not thinking about anything else.”
The Pack, if last week’s lesson is learned, will certainly not think about Hawaii’s 1-21 record on the road since the start of the 2012 season. Hawaii is 0-4 on the road this year and did not score a single point in their first three road games at Ohio State (38-0), Wisconsin (28-0) and Boise State (55-0). They have been outscored 149-27 on the road this year with all 27 points coming in the one-point loss at New Mexico. “If we learned anything on Saturday (at Wyoming) it’s that you can’t look at a team’s record,” Jones said.
The Wolf Pack, despite discouraging losses to UNLV and Wyoming over the last three weeks, still has a chance at a West Division title and a spot in the Mountain West title game. The Pack, which has five games remaining, currently trails West Division leader San Diego State by two games but the two teams will meet in San Diego on Nov. 28 with a possible West Division title on the line. The Wolf Pack also has three very winnable games the next three weeks against Hawaii, Fresno State and San Jose State who are currently a combined 7-14 overall and 3-8 in Mountain West play. “Anybody who thinks our season is dead and we don’t have anything in front of us, they’re crazy,” Jackson said. “We still have an opportunity to do great things.”
Polian just wants his roller coaster team to concentrate on the task at hand and not concern itself with a West Division title or a bowl game invitation just yet. “The inconsistencies of our football team, mentally and physically, how we’re so up and down, is maddening,” Polian said. “I have to do everything I can to figure out how to get this thing fixed.”